Amir Khan underwent a trial by inferno against pitiless Marcos Maidana last night at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, notching a unanimous decision in a spiteful war that left both fighters battered, spent, bruised, and ennobled. Both men punished each other–with a fervor–throughout the fight.
It looked like it might be a short night when Khan, now 24-1 (17), dropped Maidana with about 20 seconds remaining in the first round, stabbing a perfect left to the ribs that crumpled Maidana to the canvas, his face contorted in pain.
After being chased around the ring for the first minute of the fight, Khan began to open up and landed a stinging right uppercut that checked Maidana, who falls to 29-2 (27), neatly. But the body shot he hit Maidana with was a thing of terrible beauty. Maidana is nothing if not a hardcase, however, and he rose grimly, prepared to meet his fate, or, if possible, alter it. Unfortunately for Khan, the bell rang shortly after the mandatory eight, and Maidana trudged back to his corner and to a brief respite on the stool.
Brief because Khan, Lancashire, United Kingdom, whacked Maidana around the ring in the second round. He simply had too many tools for Maidana early, controlling the ring with footwork and snapping off rapid-fire combinations that left Maidana in the dust. Indeed, Khan looked like he could break the sound barrier compared to his foe.
But Maidana, Buenos Aires, Argentina, operates on the principle of cumulative damage and spends most of his time in the ring trying to figure out how he can grind his opponent into fine particles. With that in mind, Maidana advanced with menace, cut off the ring from time to time, and whenever Joe Cortez, whose recent induction into the Hall of Fame belies his incompetence, allowed him to use a free hand he worked Khan over easily on the inside. Maidana, 139, also landed a whistling right in the third and pounded Khan against the ropes, but Khan, 140, outboxed him for the most part, using his sharp jab to keep Maidana off-balance, and flitting from side to side to make sure Maidana was swinging at a moving target.
In the fourth, Khan worked well but stayed in range for too long at one point. All Maidana needs is a man to stand in front of him for more than a few seconds. In that brief moment, Maidana scored with a vicious, fever dream combination: a right uppercut, a left hook to the body, two left uppercuts to the point of the chin, a left hook to the head, and a right uppercut to the jaw. Khan, it should be noted, took the punishment well, and even managed to draw first blood: Maidana suffered a small cut by his right eye as the round drew to a close.
In the fifth, Joe Cortez inexplicably deducted a point from Maidana for an errant elbow. It was apparently aimed at Cortez. Only Maidana, however, knows what his intentions were at that moment. Perhaps Maidana, unlike many of the other fighters frustrated by the ineptitude of a third man who never fails to hinder one of the participants in the ring, decided to take matters into his own hands.
Cortez, who likes to lean against, grapple with, and drape himself on fighters, somehow found himself behind the roughhousing Maidana when the elbow caught him on the shoulder. If only Cortez could find himself in a nice retirement community down in Fort Lauderdale one of these days, where he can mar shuffleboard games and bingo matches willy-nilly instead of fouling up prizefights. Boxers simply work too hard—and the stakes are too high—to see their efforts continually blighted by an official who is nearly always in a panic.
Particularly disturbing is how Cortez seems unable to function whenever two fighters are working in close. Not only does he not know when to break fighters, he fails to do it properly, diving into the fray shouting “Okay! All right! Okay!” or some other gibberish. Sometimes he says nothing at all and merely lumbers forth, arms outstretched, like Imhotep as played by Boris Karloff. Occasionally, his commands are in Spanish even if both fighters are Russian, say, or the last of the ring WASPS. Many times Cortez seemed to break the fighters just when Maidana was in the middle of some serious work in the ring. Indeed, Maidana, 27, was poorly served by a referee who has been over the hill for so long, he might be halfway to China by now.
It certainly made things harder for Maidana, who already had his hands full against a young fighter trying to prove a slew of critics wrong. Although Maidana pressed relentlessly and landed his share of shots, Khan, 24, was showing speed and skill throughout the fifth and sixth.
In the seventh, Maidana pummeled Khan around the ring, at one point landing another otherworldly combination: a double left uppercut followed by a left hook to the body. Despite his often crude approach to boxing, Maidana has the kind of violent imagination that only a real prizefighter has. It served him well from time to time, but Khan dominated the eighth and ninth rounds, unleashing his own uppercut on a leaning Maidana and dropping hard rights over the top with regularity. It looked like Khan had finally taken complete control of the fight.
And then hell came for him when the 10th round rolled around.
About a minute into the frame, Maidana connected with a overhand right that left Khan looking like a man with Restless Legs Syndrome. Khan was clearly hurt, and Maidana pursued him in a frenzy, ripping uppercuts, hooks, larrups, and haymakers with both hands. As Maidana chased him down from one end of the ring to the other, whipsawing punches from either side, Khan looked on the verge of being stopped on several occasions.
At one point, Khan, in a fog, raised his arms during the onslaught to indicate his hardiness; another time, he dropped them by his sides and took ripping shots from a noted puncher. Uppercuts and hard body shots appeared to have Khan on the verge of wilting many times, but moxie pulled him through and he somehow survived a pillar-to-post pasting that lasted nearly two minutes. Khan showed incredible heart getting through the 10th, even fighting back at one point before Maidana ill-treated him all over again.
By the end of the round, however, Maidana looked as tired as a man in the 257th hour of a marathon dance. It was a draining round for both fighters, but it was Khan who staggered to his corner with a bloody nose. Khan danced early in the 11th to keep Maidana at bay, but, despite his exhaustion, the onrushing Argentine continued hurling stones from strange expressionist angles. What little technique he had, however, unraveled further with the effects of fatigue. Khan countered a wide open Maidana with a lashing right uppercut, and moments later added a flashy combination to show he was not ready to concede just yet. Maidana stalked implacably, however, and had Khan pinned against the ropes in the final twenty seconds of the round.
Not long after the two touched gloves to start the 12th, Maidana slipped back into his favorite role as juggernaut and pounded Khan with uppercuts and hooks to the body in close. Wobbly against the ropes, Khan looked like he was in dire straits again before getting some distance and unloading a blistering combination. A bloodied Khan flurried at the end of the 12th to punctuate a cruel final quarter of a grueling thrill ride of a fight.
With the win, Khan proved a resilience many speculated he might have lacked, and Maidana, with the loss, proved that he is nearly inhuman. Both men, together, proved that the strange dignity prizefighters show during harrowing moments in the ring is something a world apart from you and me, something to admire, yes, and to fear simultaneously.